American Idiot: Obama, Socialism, and the Soft-Pedaling of Racism

by John Lindsey

Bill Maher thinks we’re stupid. He’s almost certainly wrong. That being said, if he is claiming that too many Americans don’t know their asses from their elbows when it comes to knowledge about the rest of the world, their fellow citizens, or even their own government, well, that’s hard to deny.

Obama = SocialistTake the “Obama’s a socialist” claim popular with – well,  just about anyone on the far right – but most recently with the anti-health reform protesters. Now, the anger of these people is apparent, but the very act of calling the corporate-friendly Obama a socialist (apart from making actual socialists laugh) is to publicly declare that you wouldn’t know socialism if Karl Marx personally beat you over the head with it.

This is ignorance; but it is misguided (if not also ignorant) if we respond to these people as if what they’re saying has anything to do with whether or not Obama is a socialist. It doesn’t. If their anger is genuine but their accusations aren’t, it’s logical to suspect that the anger is probably coming from somewhere else.

Granted, Obama’s not the first politician to be called a socialist; nor is the use of class warfare by politicians and monied power a new tactic. Throughout our history, it’s been a highly successful method to persuade otherwise rational people to become hostile toward their own economic interests and their natural allies.

For example, many protesters of health care reform are older (and incidentally, predominantly white). Of this group, aprotest0709 substantial portion are on Medicare – a socialized, single-payer insurance system. Indeed, many of these folks would be destitute without it, which was the purpose of the institution in the first place. Why, then, would they protest a premium-driven public option? After all, they already enjoy a much better system for free. Oh, right – because it’s “socialism”. Or a “government takeover of health care.” Or – probably more accurately – because it’s “Obamacare”.

“Obamacare”, in the minds of many of these protesters, holds a stigma; because Obama himself has been (to them) successfully stigmatized. The demonization of Obama began during election season, and while vilifying political opponents is not new, the manner in which it has been applied to Obama is unique, for obvious reasons.

Whereas Democratic presidents are often portrayed as far-left advocates of causes and institutions that have become associated with people of color (e.g., welfare, Affirmative Action, discrimination in housing, and so on), Obama has been portrayed not just as a champion, but as a direct infiltration of these causes (it should be noted that forms of welfare not currently associated with people of color have no such stigma: unemployment insurance, Medicare, Social Security, etc.)


  • Obama-Fed_HitlerTo portray Obama as “different” than “us” (read: othering) is not only an appeal to racial prejudice but an attempt to place a sinister intent behind Obama’s mild, charming, centrist image.
  • To call Obama a racist is to imply not only that he will oppress whites, but will take from them to the benefit of blacks (a very real anxiety in the minds of some white folks). To say that he is a socialist or a wealth redistributionist has a similar effect.
  • To say that he is a fascist, Hitler, a social Darwinist, or someone who wants to euthanize the elderly plays to just about every other fear, bias or prejudice there is regarding having a president who is both black and a “liberal”.

Othering and Race-Baiting

Americans are busy. We work the most hours in the industrialized world (or very close to it); so it’s understandable, given the nature of our news media, that we may tend to take incidents in isolation without always detecting the subtext (a truly free press would be a good way to address this – but now we’re dreaming).

What follows are examples of the racial subtext that has run through much of the opposition to Obama since he won the primaries in 2008:

Sarah Palin:

During the 2008 election, Palin stated “This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America,” and “…he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” This was, more or less, the beginning of the “othering” of Obama, of portraying him as different, foreign, and of evil intent.

More recently, Palin referred to the House health reform bill as “downright evil”, and from whole cloth concocted Obama’s imaginary “death panel” under which children like her baby with Down Syndrome would be refused treatment as a societal “unworthy”.

Apparently, Palin has dropped the “American-hating terrorist sympathizer” charge in favor of simply portraying Obama as a brutal monster.

The Reverend Wright affair:

Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a harsh critic of government policy and a dissident, had the misfortune of being Obama’s pastor. I say “misfortune” because in the political world, the world of Fox News, and the world of the 24-hour news cycle, being an angry black man who criticizes the government and addresses racial inequality makes you an America-hating racist (the winning combination, evidently, is to be an angry white man who criticizes the current government,  who complains – without a hint of irony – about how hard it is to be white, and then to wait for the job offer from Fox News).

Unfortunately for Obama, the rules of the game are guilt-by-association, which left him in the unenviable position of denouncing the words of someone he may have had little upon which to disagree. The point of the Reverend Wright affair was to appeal to the anxiety still very much alive in the minds of some white folks; that black people are angry, hate white people, and want to take your hard-earned money away.

“Wright and his cronies…want reparations”Rush Limbaugh

The Birther Movement:

BirtherThese conspiracy theorists are fringe activists who claim – against overwhelming evidence – that Obama is not an American. From this movement come the cries of “I want my country back“. We could probably close the case right there as far as motives, but we shouldn’t; because they’re given disproportionate air-time by the media (and not just by Fox News.)

Furthermore, there are Republicans in congress right now questioning Obama’s citizenship and soft-pedaling the rather obvious racial undertones of the birther movement. There is even proposed legislation (Republicans again) to require presidential candidates to provide birth certificates.

It also bears considering that according to this poll, only 42% of Republicans are sure that Obama is an American citizen (for a bit more of a breakdown, it would appear that confidence in Obama as an American citizen tends to deteriorate relative to how Republican and southern you are. Hmm.)

“All they wanted to do was say, ‘Where’s the birth certificate?’  That’s all they were asking.”Sean Hannity

Right-Wing Media:

Listing all of the race-baiting that is going on in right-wing media would take forever, so we’ll stick to the two most prominent cases.

To begin with, they stir up racial fear, bias and anxiety. For example:

Glenn Beck charged that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” and that “this guy is, I believe, a racist.”

He also outlines what the outcome of that racism would be (all italics mine): “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill is driven by President Obama’s thinking on one thing: reparations.” Later, he claimed that Obama’s “goal is creating a new America, a new model, a model that will settle old racial scores through new social justice.”

Rush Limbaugh stated: “Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, ruled by dictate,”  and: “Obama is asking citizens to rat each other out like Hitler did.”

On Obama’s economic policy, Limbaugh opines: “…the objective is to take the nation’s wealth and return to it to the nation’s quote, ‘rightful owners.’ Think reparations. Think forced reparations here if you want to understand what actually is going on.”

This sort of demagoguery has predictable results:

“hundreds of vocal critics turned out, many of them saying they had been spurred on through the Tampa 912 activist group promoted by conservative radio and television personality Glenn Beck.” – St. Petersburg Times

Vodpod videos no longer available.
John Stewart, on target as usual.

And then the soft-pedaling begins:

effigy“This is citizens speaking out and demanding to be heard… They’ve dragged out every page in their playbook… Smear tactics like accusing us of links to Nazism and the Klan and racism,” – Rush Limbaugh

(To town hall protesters) “[T]he media sees you as anything but a regular Joe; more like a … ‘typical rich, white person’. You’re nuts. You’re evil. You’re crazy. You’re annoying. You’re racist — even ‘un-American'” – Glenn beck


Protester with gunWe’re seeing anger, anxiety, and fear.  People are saying that they want their country back, that the end of the republic is nigh, that armed revolution is coming (by armed protesters, no less ). We’re seeing racist signs and imagery; Obama being called a socialist, a Hitler, someone who will enslave whites, and so on.

The undertone of racism is both implicit and often explicit, its extent largely unreported by the news, its nature soft-pedaled by opportunistic politicians and right-wing media sources. Unconditionally referring to these people as merely “concerned, average Americans” is a patent lie. To refer to disruption, intimidation and shutting down of debate as “democracy in action” is a patent lie.

It is these lies that expose their cynicism about our intelligence and our nature; and it runs through every echelon of our government, corporate system, and news media. They think we’re bigger idiots than Bill Maher ever could; because unlike him, they’re not trying to help.

We’re not dumb; but we can be ignorant. We’re also not, by and large, racists; but we can be ignorant about racism when it isn’t overt. If we’re prepared to agree that this is true, then perhaps we can agree to treat covert racism, “othering”, race-baiting – and the soft-pedaling of racism by the very people who stir it up – with the utter contempt it deserves.

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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Little known fact. If Americans added their current health care costs (premiums, co-pays, etc.) to their yearly taxes, they pay more than socialist countries.

    People in Scandinavian countries work far fewer hours, their collective standard of living is higher, they are healthier, they have higher levels of civic engagement, and win the “happiness” survey done almost every year.

    So yeah. God forbid anyone in the U.S. adopt any of those standards.

    • pds: The debate as it stands is about a lot of things, but rationality isn’t one of them. We already pay enough for any universal health care system we could want.
      We pay about double what any other developed country pays, and come in at 37th om health care outcomes.

      Unfortunately, it’s not about facts or solidarity right now. Very much the opposite

  2. […] already discussed here on this blog how those people seem to be using their free speech right to generate some of the […]

  3. […] Tim Wise, an anti-racist writer and speaker, was recently on CNN to comment on the racial subtext present in much of the opposition to Obama and his domestic agenda (we also covered this in “American Idiot: Obama, Socialism, and the Soft-Pedaling of Racism“): […]

  4. Stop it.

    Jeremiah Wright accused the Jews of inventing AIDS, so that Israel could colonize Africa. He spewed blood libel in his sermons. He wasn’t merely some dissident against American policy, as you and all the other hacks portray him as.

    None of us were appalled because he was an angry black man. We aren’t the caricatures you portray. Stop libeling us.

    • I’m not sure I saw where he accused Jews of inventing AIDS, but it’s neither here nor there. Some of what Jeremiah Wright has said has been said by others and is false, such as the conspiracy theory that the government invented AIDS to kill Black people. However, that does not reduce his status as a dissident. There is no question he was a dissident.

      I believe John’s point was to say that because President Obama had an association with Jeremiah Wright, he was in lockstep agreement with Jeremiah Wright, and therefore you should be afraid of angry black men with the power to take things away from you. Not only was President Obama not in lockstep agreement with Jeremiah Wright, he publically disagreed with several things Jeremiah Wright said. Yet the press continued to follow Wright, and John’s argument is that this was done to reinforce the anxiety.

  5. So “fact” deals with the fact that no real evidence exists that shows obama was born a US citizens by running a quote from some guy saying it isn’t important? that is the overwhelming proof? why not just show a real, long forum legal birth certificate? not that had a thing to do, a lot easier than putting up a forgery like they did

    still haven’t seen 1 “racist” sign at a protest, the liberals can keep wishing that the protesters will sink to their levels but it hasn’t happened yet, regardless of what pelosi makes up, it just isn’t true

    the whole “death panels” well well well, looks like Palin was right, before people who have been programmed to attack anything she says, they may want to actually look at comments made by dems on the House floor

    universal health care isn’t as much about the incredible cost, but more about the government having control over the health care of the people as well as another 18% of the nations wealth

    fact is that the US has fallen harder in the past 20 years than it has in the previous 200, and out of the past 20 the past 9 months have been be far the worse

    if the glib, weak minded fools are willing to fall for the lies that DC tells them that is fine, but don’t get so upset when someone else does not believe those same lies that you have to attack them and their families, the physical attacks especially need to end, no body regardless of how many “obama” shirts and posters they own, has the right to physically attack another human just because they don’t agree with what they have been programmed to believe

    dissent is the greatest forum of Patriotism, never trust the goernment, always question those in power, if you do not you will fall for the empty promises and constructed lies they spew

    God Bless America and all her legal and sane people

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